The best thing to come out of the blackface scandal that has engulfed Virginia is that it’s forced us to confront our history — a history that in this case intrudes uncomfortably on the present.
The worst thing to come out of the twin scandals involving Gov. Ralph Northam and Attorney General Mark Herring is that they paint Virginia with all the worst Southern stereotypes. Just as bad, we can’t exactly bemoan that those stereotypes are untrue, either:
- The yearbook for one of the state’s medical schools in 1984 included multiple photos of people in blackface — not just the photo on Northam’s page that showed one man in blackface and another in a Klan robe.
- Both Northam and Herring have admitted to wearing blackface to impersonate African-American entertainers. Herring, at the age of 19, put on a wig and “brown makeup” to imitate Kurtis Blow in 1980. Northam, at the age of 25, put shoe polish on his face to impersonate Michael Jackson in a dance contest in 1984.
- Northam says he didn’t understand until he was running for governor in 2017 that donning blackface to mimic Jackson was offensive.
How can any of this be? Even in its most segregationist days, Virginia prided itself on practicing what it considered a more genteel form of racism than its lower-class brethren of the Deep South. (For more on this, see the chapter that political scientist V.O. Key Jr. devoted to Virginia in his landmark 1949 book “Southern Politics in State and Nation.” It’s still considered the definitive work on that subject.)
When segregation finally fell, Virginia considered itself at the forefront of that generation’s iteration of “the new South.” Gov. Linwood Holton used his inaugural address to declare “the era of defiance is behind us.” That’s the famous line by which Holton broke from the past. He used this one to set Virginia on a new course: “As Virginia has been a model for so much else in America in the past, let us now endeavor to make today’s Virginia a model in race relations.” Holton did so, too. His term was defined by a single image — the famous photograph of the governor escorting his daughter to a predominantly black school in Richmond. That came just seven years after another Southern governor had stood in a schoolhouse door to deliver a very different sort of message.
Virginia was by no means perfect in its racial relations, but the state did seem to aspire to be better. In 1981, when a former segregationist used racially-charged language to support his party’s candidate for governor, the result was a voter backlash that saw the other party’s candidate elected instead. In 1985, Virginians elected Douglas Wilder as lieutenant governor. In 1989, they elected him as governor — the first African-American elected governor of any state. Twice Tom Bradley had run for governor of California in the 1980s and lost each time. When Virginia did what trendy California had twice failed to do, Virginians considered themselves rightly proud of their accomplishment —even if they didn’t necessarily agree with Wilder’s politics. By the time Justin Fairfax was elected as the state’s second African-American lieutenant governor in 2017, his race seemed only an interesting footnote. We’ve had an African-American preside as chief justice of the Virginia Supreme Court, something most other states can’t claim. Economically, Virginia is building the Silicon Valley of the East, its reputation as a cutting-edge state seemingly validated by Amazon’s decision to locate half of its “HQ2” in Arlington.
And now all this happens. Was it all a lie? Did Virginians — more specifically white Virginians — delude themselves into thinking the state was more progressive than it really was? Who didn’t know by 1980 and 1984 that it was racist to wear blackface? Yet here we have evidence of multiple people doing so at some of the state’s most prestigious institutions. Those weren’t years dredged up from some distant, segregationist past such as Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment’s 1968 VMI yearbook. Those were years when Virginia was at least superficially becoming more progressive — which raises the question of whether we’re as progressive now as we think we are. Let’s be plain: What’s come to light about Virginia nearly four decades ago has smeared the state’s reputation today. We’re the butt of jokes on late night TV. The New York Post’s front page screams: “Virginia Is For Losers.” And social media? Social media is even worse, if that’s possible.
We hate to rely on Twitter for much of anything but sometimes it can be useful to find out what’s being said, and here are some of the things being said about Virginia:
“What’s the matter With Virginia? I mean, really. How tough was it to keep black shoe polish off your face or stay out of Klan robes as a young man in that state in the 1980s?”
“At 62 I’m close in age to Mark Herring (57) and Ralph Northam (59). I’ve never worn black face. I’ve never attended any events where people were wearing black face during my college years or at any time. Is this the difference between my home state of Illinois and Virginia?”
“Gee, Virginia doesn’t sound like a very enlightened place.”
No, no it doesn’t. We’d like to say that what Northam and Herring have admitted to doesn’t reflect Virginia, but obviously it reflects a certain slice of Virginia that existed not that long ago. How much of that still exists today? The reality is we have no way of knowing.
Just last year Northam presided over an inauguration that, while it lacked the memorable rhetoric of Holton’s inauguration, was just as bold in declaring a new Virginia. Northam looked on as the most diverse inaugural parade in the state’s history marched by — a celebration of the state’s new demographics. There were folk dancers from Bolivia, China and India who have now made Virginia their home. The Pledge of Allegiance was delivered by the All Dulles Area Muslim Society Center Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts — including some girls wearing hijabs. That’s the Virginia we wanted to showcase to the world, a state that is open and open-minded. Instead, we are now reminded of a very different Virginia, where not that long ago it was sport to wear blackface, and not even our otherwise progressive-minded governor didn’t realize until recently that was offensive.
Should Northam and Herring stay or go? Whatever the answer, the damage to Virginia’s reputation has already been done. Whoever comes after is going to have to do a lot of work to repair it. We’re all going to have to do a lot of work to repair it.